Jazzmatazz, Justice System, Jazz Poets Society.. all artists that come in mind when you think of some classic jazzy Hip Hop. But let’s not forget about Geoff Wilkinson’s Us3. The formation is active since 1993 and released the first Blue Note record that went Platinum. This year Geoff Wilkinson hooked up with MC’s Sene and Brook Yung from New York and released a brand new album, called ‘Stop.Think.Run’. An interview about sixteen years of Us3, Jazz, Hip Hop and everything in between.
Preview: Us3 – Man on Top
‘Hand On The Torch‘ was the first Blue Note album to reach Platinum status. Can you tell me something about that great success of your full length debut?
’93/’94 was certainly the most crazy period of my life! It was relentless touring & travelling for about 18 months. Nobody expected that level of success and we certainly hadn’t even thought about putting a band together when we actually made the album. I’m glad we did though, it was amazing to go to so many different countries and cultures, and meet so many great people. It really made me appreciate how important it is to take your music out to the audience, something I still like to do
The formation of Us3 changed a lot. Why do you choose to switch artists (mostly MC’s), instead of sticking to the same team for each album?
Us3 isn’t a “group” in any conventional meaning, it’s really a producer-driven project. It was always the intention to change the vocalists on every album. The idea was to keep it fresh & interesting. I figured that if I was excited by working with new people, that would convey itself in the music & get across to the audience. And it’s good for me as a producer to work with other vocalists, I’ve learned something new from everyone I’ve worked with. As for the musicians, I’ve got a hard core group of guys that have been working with me for a while, but I still like to bring in new musicians on each album. An Us3 album is a huge collaborative effort that revolves around me pulling it together.
Lots of readers of The Find like the music of Sene. How did you get in touch with him and why did you decided to work with him on your latest album?
I found both Sene & Brook Yung (MC’s on “Stop. Think. Run”) through myspace! I’d actually come across Sene’s page nearly a year before I contacted him, and had him marked down as someone I’d like to work with. He’s got a great flow which can be quite intricate, yet a lot of his subject matter is about the everyday struggles of life. That was an interesting juxtaposition, and I think his style works really well on my beats. He did an amazing job on “Who Got Next?”.
Why did your partner Mel Simpson leave the group in 1996? And what was the influence of that on Us3?
During the madness of ’93/’94 we were thrust together like never before, and that pressure caused a rift between us. I ended up buying him out & continued with the Us3 name. Mel actually died about 5 years ago, which was a huge shock to me, I didn’t even know he was ill…
Can you tell me something about the beginning of Us3? About the early days, the concept and the ‘birth’ of Us3?
The first track Mel & I did together was called “Where Will We Be In The 21st Century?” and featured an English rapper MC Honey B and a jazz pianist called Jessica Lauren. I pressed up 500 copies of a white label 12” and sold them in shops in London. That got me to the attention of Ninja Tune, who were a very small label at the time. They offered me a deal, and released “The Band Played The Boogie” in the name of NW1 (which is the postcode for Camden Town, where both Mel & I lived at the time). That featured an English rapper called Born 2B and sax player Ed Jones (who’s still with me!) and came out in 1991. The track sampled Grant Green’s version of “Sookie Sookie”, which was a huge track in the jazz dance clubs at the time, and I guess that set the template for the Us3 sound. An A&R guy heard it on the radio and tracked me down, and in our first meeting I had one of those “seize the day” moments and suggested the whole thing to him. At the time I was working in the Jazz Café in London and DJing there every Friday night. Blue Note didn’t jump in straight away though, they gave us some money to do some demos, and “Cantaloop” was one of the demos. That’s what got me the deal. It was always my intention and desire to explore the relationship between jazz and hip hop right from the beginning.
Preview: Us3 – Abc (Listen Up)
You are active with Us3 for sixteen years now. Do you think your music changed a lot throughout the years? If so, what are the biggest differences of Us3 back then and Us3 now (style, music, lyrically, etc)?
The major difference now is that I don’t use samples. As the whole thing developed the band became a really important component, so instead of using samples I started bringing the guys from the band into the studio and effectively creating my own “samples”. It’s developed into something a bit more organic than that now. I think the new album is the best thing I’ve ever done.
And how is it with the Jazz and Hip Hop crossover. How do you think about the scene and potential nowadays compared to back then?
I still think there’s a lot of great stuff out there, you just have to dig a bit harder for it. There’s less artists doing this stuff that are crossing over now, but that’s due more to the lack of investment by bigger labels in the music rather than any lack of creativity.
It’s hard to label your music, so how would you describe the music of Us3 to people who don’t know it?
It’s always been about the fusion of jazz and hip hop and always will be! I think there are loads of different styles of jazz, and lots of different styles of hip hop now too, that the possiblities of putting them together are endless.
Your tour archive is impressive. For readers who never been to a live show of you before, what can they expect?
As I said earlier, I think it’s really important to take your music out to the audience. Getting feedback from the people who buy your music and pay to come and see you is priceless. On stage the live show is a living breathing representation of the albums. There’s obviously a bit more improvisation on stage, and everyone in the band has their own solo spots to show what they can do. Everyone is a star in the Us3 band! We’ve already played 29 gigs in 13 different countries this year, and we’ve got a handful more coming up in October. Check our site for dates and locations! And we’re going to China too, I can’t wait for that! As for the future, I can’t tell you what I’m going to do next, because even I don’t know!
Words by: Danny
More info: Us3